Newsletter, Issue 9
After speaking about what happens in step families and how individuals feel in Part 1, I know some of you are waiting for something more concrete that will support you in the realities of life in a step family, so here it is. Part 2 below introduces four ideas, and Part 3 will follow with more.
1. Be realistic and give yourself a break.
Let go of the vision of a big happy family and start to explore the idea of a blended family, one that has a mix of different parts. For some individuals this will feel like a loss and disappointment and talking about it will help them express these feelings. Look for the small positives amongst the messiness, because this is a messy process, and celebrate those for yourself, your relationship and your children.
2. Focus on your relationship.
Children are often naturally defiant or unsupportive of new relationships that develop once parents have split up, and it takes time and effort to help them work through the mix of emotions they feel. However, once you’ve committed to a new relationship and are creating a step family, invest time in that relationship, and don’t just focus on the children. Whilst children will naturally act out during this time, needing a lot of your time and energy, and have very strong feelings about this investment in your ‘new’ relationship, subconsciously the more solid your new relationship feels the sooner they will feel supported by it. This is true even if they never consciously acknowledge it, or even argue the opposite!
Be prepared that over time this will mean exploring together why previous relationships did not work, and exploring how you resolve old patterns.
3. Create 1:1 time.
All family members need 1:1 time, whether they are sustaining their existing relationship or getting to know each other. It gives each child specific attention, the space for each relationship to be wherever it is, and takes the pressure away to blend as a whole family unit. Plan this into your week or month. You can use activities, such as sports or the cinema, where there is less need to talk to help take the pressure off a new adult-child relationship and still give shared time.
4. Set time aside to listen to everyone’s experiences.
The more time you give to discussion the more space there is for everyone to talk about their emotions rather than act them out. Holidays and Christmas for example are no longer straight forward family times, but often entail complex negotiations the UN would be proud of. There needs to be a structure to ensure this happens, so create a weekly family or talking time where you all sit down together so you can see each other, and each person has a chance to share how they’re feeling and what’s happening for them. This is likely to be as hard for the adults as children involved as many of us are not used to sharing what we feel in such an open way or talking about our experiences within a family.
Initially this needs to focus on step issues, and it will help if you take one item at a time and start with a few areas, rather than trying to talk about everything at once. You can set an amount of time each individual can talk for and have a rule that no one is interrupted during ‘their’ time, so everyone feels what they have to say is respected and heard. (Schools use something similar called ‘circle time’ and it has been shown to increase self esteem, amongst other things.) Some children may need more encouragement than others or choose to use silence to express themselves! You might not like what you hear, or the silence, but it will ensure its being expressed rather than building up. Agree the rules up front and name that you are not aiming to get agreement, inviting differences. You can also encourage everyone to identify where they have things in common, whether attitudes, such as playfulness, habits or hobbies.
You will notice a number of the recommendations involve planning and creating clear structures, and for those who tend to go with the flow, or for some who have not been a parent before, this will probably feel like hard work. However, I encourage you to give it a try and see if it helps. After all it may be a new habit that enables you all to live more happily together.